This is an edited review of that done for LandfallOnLine, the online arm of Landfall magazine, champions of NZ literature since 1947.  Thank you for the opportunity.

The author, Linda Olsson, Swedish by birth, has lived outside Sweden since 1986, and in New Zealand since 1990. Her first novel, Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs, was very favorably received and made some good circuits in the book club scene. She has published two other novels since, with this latest being published in Swedish back in 2014.  

There are many devoted fans of Linda Olsson. Based on reviews I have read of her other books, this latest novel will be keenly read and enjoyed by those who like her writing, her themes of love, loss, memories, hope and moving forward. The writing is very beautiful, lyrical, gentle, slightly hypnotic even. Set in Stockholm from late winter to August, there is almost an ethereal quality to the writing, casting a sort of magic light over the city, where anything may be possible. Nothing in the writing seems forced, there is a natural flow to how conversations evolve, how stories are told through the dialogue, how relationships develop through the characters’ responses and reactions to each other. Sentences are short and uncomplicated, as are the chapters. It is easy to read, easy to put down and easy to pick up again.  

The cover on the original Swedish edition features a blackbird, in a room, sitting on a hand. Compare it to the cover of this latest edition with its orange silhouette of what could be any garden bird against a slightly clashing green background. A blackbird in a room? Perched and chirping on a hand? And yet this illustrates much more effectively what the novel is about than the orange/green/generic bird cover. Because the blackbird is central to the story, not only in its capacity as a songbird, but also as an analogy and personification of the main character Elisabeth. And perhaps for the author, being Swedish herself, a symbol of her homeland, her own memories, what she has left behind in leaving Sweden, and her personal identity. 

The blackbird is actually Sweden's national bird, becoming so back in 1962 following a nationwide vote. This choice was reaffirmed only last year in another vote, just to make sure that the blackbird still reigned supreme fifty plus years later, well ahead of its main rival the magpie. Oh, if only national referendums could be so easy....    Like most creatures, the blackbird hides away during the colder months, reappearing in the spring with 'its beautiful. Sad and soothing at the same time'.  

The speaker of those words is Otto, a widower in his late sixties, who lives in an apartment building in Stockholm. Otto is a retired bookseller; he was married to Eva who has recently died. His is not an unsatisfactory life but there is a perceptive sadness to his existence, which seems a little pointless now that he no longer has his shop or a companion to share his life and the wonderful meals he cooks. He does have a lot of books though which he shares with Elias, a young man who lives in an apartment on the floor below. Elias is a very gifted artist who works as a cartoonist/graphic novel illustrator. He is severely dyslexic, seeing his world through pictures and images, but does enjoy being read to by Otto, and being Otto's weekly dinner guest. Their Tuesday night dinners are the highlight of Otto’s week. These two have a deep friendship, possibly on a par with an uncle-nephew relationship, mutually respectful and affectionate.

Elisabeth is a very sad and lonely woman, very depressed, although the reader does not find out the reasons for her deep unhappiness until the last quarter of the novel. It is January when she moves into the building. Silent, reclusive, alone, eating her way through packet soups, surrounded by unpacked boxes, haunted in her dreams by the Woman in Green, bills piling up. Life is bleak for Elisabeth.  There is nothing at this stage to tell us of who she is, where she has come from, why she is in such a poor emotional and physical state. The book begins in March, spring just starting to rise, the days getting just a little less dark. Her contact with the outside world is forced upon her by a chance, but unspoken encounter with Elias through the letter box in her apartment door, Elias 'posting' mail for her inadvertently delivered to him.  A book exchange follows which then brings Otto into the triangle as the reader of the book gifted to Elias by Elisabeth. Now that a pattern of obligation has been set up, Elisabeth finds herself forced into continuing this intangible and invisible contact for a few more book exchanges. Until the day the paths of these three people cross quite suddenly and unexpectedly when Elias is the victim of a homophobic attack.

As spring becomes summer, the days grow warmer and longer, so too does the friendship between these three. Otto feeds them, they share books, music, friendship. The walls Elisabeth has built around herself very slowly and gently start to fall away. She removes the paper wad that was silencing her door bell, she opens her unpacked moving boxes, bit by bit takes things out of them, she starts to care for her appearance, she lets Otto do some shopping for her, finally she ventures outside into the sunlight with him. And the blackbird returns to Otto’s window.

From his first contact with Elisabeth through the letter box in her door, Elias has been strangely captivated by her. Unable to use words to express himself, Elias has started drawing a blackbird. He has no idea where this is going, but is strangely drawn to this new arrival in the building who reminds him of a blackbird. 
This bird that Elias is compelled to draw is clearly an analogy for Elisabeth - injured, defenseless, delicate and weak, sometimes looking as if it is barely alive. And this becomes the driving force of the book - the half dead/half alive bird constantly lingering at the fringes of the story and of the friendships between Elisabeth, Otto and Elias. 

However, there is a fourth character in this story – the Woman in Green. She lives in Elisabeth’s mind, has done off and on since childhood, and with Elisabeth in her despairing state has taken up permanent residence. The Woman in Green does not like Elisabeth’s new friends, her increasing happiness, her finding the sunlight again. Elisabeth is clearly frightened of this presence in her, and finds herself constantly being drawn back to her inner darkness and despair. 

This constant push/pull between the Woman in Green and the blackbird as the symbol of new life, joy, lightness and happiness is at the very core of the novel, as they fight for Elisabeth’s essence. The ending, when it comes, is very ambiguous. How it is interpreted may well depend on the mindset of the reader at the time. How strange to think, that maybe when the book is reread at some future time, the ending may be seen differently.

I have enjoyed this novel more than I expected to, despite finding Elisabeth irritating and not fully believing in her character. The extremes in her new found happiness versus her intense sadness and hopelessness, and her quick switches between these two extremes just did not sit right. There did not seem to be enough shades of grey in her emotional range. But as I have not suffered with depression, it may well be that people do have such very different public and private faces. I guess we all do to a certain extent. Even though the main character is Elisabeth, I actually found Otto the most well rounded and developed character. Aside from being intensely likeable, he is the most motivated to make a change, is very self-aware, and very intuitive in his relationships with Elias and Elisabeth. I liked him a lot. As I suspect, will all those Linda Olsson fans who will enjoy this latest release immensely.

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